Is Wind the New Coal? West Butte Wind Power Controversy Gives a Feeling of Déjàvu

[cc photo courtesy of Slaunger]

The federal government is considering giving West Butte Wind Power a permit to cause the violent deaths of protected golden eagles, which are very likely to be mangled on impact with the huge rotating blades of its wind turbines. The “take” permit would limit the company to three golden eagle kills over a five year period, but—even if we allow for a moment that killing any birds would be OK—how will the company guarantee that only three birds will die? If more birds die, will it be able to say that this was beyond its control? Will operations cease after that? What if the birds massacred by the blades leave chicks to die in the nest? How do we know that the promise of conservation to mitigate these losses will be kept, or that the effort will even be successful?

One Northern California wind farm alone actually kills 116 eagles per year, an estimated total of 2,900 over the farm’s 25-year history.

Allowing a wind turbine company to kill eagles in exchange for contributing to conservation efforts is like telling a pharmaceutical company it’s OK to kill a few children in dangerous drug trials if they also promise to invest in fertility clinics. I know full well what a bold analogy this is; but these arguments are pretty self evident to those who understand planet earth and the animals and ecosystems it supports. For nature lovers, who have been under constant pressure to support wind power because it could be the next step in stopping deadly pollution from coal-fired power plants, it has come down to risk versus reward. Compared to the devastating havoc coal wreaks on the environment and human health, it might be tempting to admit that a few dead birds and bats doesn’t seem like such a high price to pay.

Unfortunately, the full environmental impact of wind farms with dozens of huge turbines might not be felt until the number of active farms is far greater. We need to take a step back and make realistic predictions based on the damage we are already seeing. Anything with the potential to diminish raptor populations could increase the numbers of rodents that spread Lymes disease and cause numerous other problems for humans. Irresponsible killing of insect-eating birds and bats could upset the balance of the ecosystem that keeps insects populations under control, at which time government agencies will likely do what they’ve always done: pump the environment full of “safe” pesticides.

It’s all speculation, of course, however well-supported, and our particular brand of pseudo-capitalism here in the US supports companies in taking risks affecting millions of humans and other species, then allows them to abscond with the profits when things go bad. Big gas and coal corporations have been pulling this little number over and over again for decades, leaving volunteers and nonprofit organizations to clean up the mess as best they can.

The negative environmental effects of industrial-scale wind turbines thus far, and the fact that companies are now finding it necessary to fight regulation in order to continue doing business, gives me a frightening sense of déjàvu. Something that seemed like a good idea worth billions of dollars in research and development may not be viable after all, and wind companies are stuck holding the bag. Not unlike coal or gas companies, wind companies realize that enforcement of existing regulations and the creation of new ones to cover the unforeseen circumstances will spell mind-boggling losses for them. The longer they cling to hope that their initial assessment of viability was correct, the more they dig themselves into a hole that only government intervention can pull them out of.

With the advent of Occupy Wall Street, the populous at large has awoken to the fact that government intervention  in these situations isn’t consistent with the economic Darwinism that has applied to smaller businesses and individuals. For a very large segment of the population, saving big wind companies from their own short-sightedness and reluctance to admit the glaring truth just isn’t going to fly.

We are then left to deal with the rest of the population, who still buy into wind power wholeheartedly with little concern for wildlife, or who maybe just don’t get the whole Occupy Wall Street thing. For them, there is another sense of déjàvu that should ring true.

If you’ve ever delved into the history of telecommunications, you’ve probably seen drawings of the semaphore telegraphs built in the early 1800s.

Early telegraphs consisted of thirty-foot wooden masts with an eight-foot-long arm on each side. The arms were attached to the mast in such a way as to allow them to move up and down, the way a human being would move his arms for semaphore signals. Operators  manipulated the enormous but simple anthropomorphic devices atop stations built on on hills, so that the semaphore could be seen by an operator at a neighboring station, who would then mimic the signal to relay it to the next station, and so forth.

These huge towers became a fairly common site across the European landscape. At the time, people were very excited to have a comparatively fast, relatively reliable way to send messages across great distances. In spite of its limitations, this system was far better than anything they’d had before; but by the time the first electric telegraph went into commercial use in 1838, the clumsy, inefficient semaphore telegraphs had long been abandoned. Information could now be sent with nearly 100% accuracy over an unlimited distance by the mere tapping of a hand on a button.  Can you imagine the government stepping in at this point to save the semaphore telegraph?

What does the history of the telegraph have to do with wind turbines? It has everything to do with wind turbines, because it has everything to do with innovation and the tendency of human history to repeat itself.  It is a historical fact that progress is not kind to devices that are ponderous and unwieldy, or that require a lot of physical gyration to operate. There is a reason we no longer have mainframe computers that take up entire rooms, or use the huge wireless telephones you can still see in movies and television programs from the late eighties and early nineties.

West Butte Wind Power is trying to fight the inexorable march of history; its turbines are semaphore telegraphs. Solar panel technology–home and community based–is the iPhone.

Until now, solar has been somewhat demonized in favor of wind, but as time goes on and groups raise awareness about the potential ill environmental effects of industrial-scale wind operations, public opinion is likely to shift. Disgraced solar-power firm Solyndra has been used as an excuse to criticize the feasibility of solar as well, but it’s worth noting that the media tend withhold additional details that would keep the problem in perspective. Solyndra was just one highly publicized failure amongst hundreds of successes. There are over 5,500 viable solar companies currently operating the United States, and Spain and Germany are already way ahead of us.

Like the iPhone, solar panels are still quite expensive, but with continuing development and the right marketing, people will be more than willing pay to jump on the sleek, efficient wave of the future. If wind companies want to stay in the “green” game, they need to design better technology, not fight government regulations. Allowing technological dinosaurs to die and the people to support the innovations that impress them is the way capitalism is supposed to work. Regardless of how they feel about my comparison of killing eagles to murdering children, investors should take notice.